The Spirit of Truth: God’s Comfort and Counsel
John 16:12-15 (NRSV)
If you are a human being, you’ve experienced grief. This grief can be the result of losses both big and small, but the experience of grieving cannot be “ranked” based on the perceived severity of the loss. Any loss is a loss. Having endured a global pandemic for two years with all the losses that might mean has made many of us more aware of the effects grief has on our bodies and minds. For example, a person who is grieving may feel panic, sadness, and anxiety. But at the same time, grief affects that person’s ability to think and process information. They might find it hard to concentrate, take in new information, and figure out the next steps. The American Brain Foundation reports that prolonged stress and grief “can disrupt the diverse cognitive domains of memory, decision-making … attention, work fluency, and the speed of information processing.”
The issue of grief and its effects are not a modern dilemma. The disciples were grief-stricken when faced with the hard truth of Jesus’ imminent death. In Jesus’ farewell words to them found in John chapters 13-17, Jesus explains what is going to happen, why it will happen, and why they do not need to be concerned. Just prior to today’s passage, Jesus acknowledges their grief (John 16:6) and reminds them he is not leaving them alone. Our sermon text for today talks about the role of the Holy Spirit in comforting and counseling them after Jesus’s death. Let’s read the text:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15 NRSV)
What can we notice about this passage?
- On this Trinity Sunday, this passage helps enlarge our understanding of the mystery of the triune God, particularly the Holy Spirit:
The Holy Spirit reveals Jesus, who came to reveal the Father’s love and character.
- “He will guide you into all the truth.” Jesus calls himself “the Truth” (John 14:6), and then he identifies the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth” (John 16:13).
- “He will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears.” The Holy Spirit is in complete agreement with the Father and Son, guiding us into all truth. If Jesus is the truth (John 14:6) and the truth is the revelation of who God is and the mystery of God’s love and grace, the Spirit will continue speaking the same truth.
- “He will declare to you the things that are to come.” We can trust that the source of this revelation is God. We can also trust ourselves to recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit who will only “speak whatever he hears” from the triune God (John 14:13). The voice of the Holy Spirit will always be loving and kind, even when convicting.
The Holy Spirit guides us in living out Jesus’ revelation of God.
- “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” The doctrine of the Trinity is practical as it addresses how we participate in God’s revelation in the world through Jesus by the Spirit. Even though Jesus is no longer in person on the earth, God’s revelation to human beings is accessible through the Spirit of truth.
Believers can rely on the Holy Spirit to understand how to live out the faith of Jesus in an ever-changing world. In John 16:12-15, words (verbs) that are all about communication (i.e., say, speak, declare) occur six times in just four verses. Keeping the lines of communication open between God and us is one of the roles of the Holy Spirit. Because the Spirit is a witness to Jesus, who simply is passing along what the Father tells him, we can consider the Holy Spirit a reliable leader as we make our way in the world.
We also can see Jesus acting as the Good Shepherd toward the disciples, comforting them in their grief over his departure, and in these four short verses, we can understand two important principles about human beings and our relationship with the triune God:
1. Grief and uncertainty affect our ability to take in new information.
- “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” In John 14:12, Jesus knew the disciples could not bear any more new information. He didn’t tell them the hard truths about his death previously because he was with them (John 16:4). Now that they know he is leaving, “sorrow has filled your hearts” (John 16:6). Jesus is letting them know they will be okay, telling them “It is to your advantage that I go away” so that the “Helper” or “Advocate” will come (John 16:7). Jesus takes on a pastoral role to his disciples and us when we’re grieving, offering reassuring words of comfort. We must recognize grief’s impact on us and others, especially during the past two years of the pandemic. From a place of deep compassion, we need to extend kindness and patience to ourselves and to others.
2. We are never alone, despite how we may feel. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to continue to reveal God the Father and glorify Jesus to his followers. In this passage he introduces the Holy Spirit as our constant companion, one that speaks in harmony with the Father and the Son.
- We can trust the Advocate or the Spirit of Truth because the Spirit comes from the Father (John 14:16) and testifies to Jesus (John 15:26). Jesus assures his disciples, both then and now, that the Holy Spirit only “will speak whatever he hears” (John 16:13).
- The Holy Spirit unifies us with the triune God. Jesus prayed, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (John 17:21). Even when we feel alone and grieving, unable to understand or trust, the Holy Spirit is never taken away but continues to offer loving grace and comfort.
- Recognize that grief affects our ability to listen to others and God, but we are never alone. By understanding this, we can be gentle with ourselves, allowing others to comfort us and reminding ourselves of God’s ever-present love and mercy. In the same way, recognize that grief affects others’ ability to hear our comfort and encouragement. We must be patient with others as we remind them of the promise that we are never alone.
- Realize that the Holy Spirit enlarges our understanding of the Triune God and helps us live out and participate in God’s love for the world. We can trust the kind and loving communication of the Holy Spirit to guide our efforts to share God’s grace with those we interact with, and we can follow the Spirit’s lead to help us discern how to express God’s love in the most appropriate ways.
Grief can affect our ability to take in new information, even as it affected the disciples’ ability to make sense of what Jesus was telling them on his last night with them. We can take comfort in the mystery of the triune God, knowing that we are not left to figure things out on our own. The Spirit of truth will continue to reveal Jesus and the Father to us and show how we can best love others and ourselves.
Continuing A CONVERSATION ABOUT FREE WILL
Predestination: Does God Choose Your Fate? (Part 2) … by J. Michael Feazell
TULIP plays out in some startlingly non-biblical ways. The Bible says God hates sin, yet this construct says he made some folks damned sinners on purpose. The Bible says “for God so loved the world” (John 3:16) and that God wants “all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) and Christ says “I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32), yet the TULIP construct suggests a God who “loves” some (most, as it turns out) by damning them before they ever drew breath. This does not fit our normal definitions of “love.”
The Bible, in contrast, presents God as interacting with humans in meaningful ways and even records some conversations with people in which God is said to learn something or change his mind. The concept of prayer suggests that God is sometimes willing to change what he does based on what we ask.
Where does five-point Calvinism leave us? It leaves most of us predestined human wretches in hell, where God supposedly created us to go, and, according to this construct, he enjoys our eternal torment as a tribute to his supreme justice and righteousness.
The Bible draws the picture rather differently, thank God. It might be a good idea for us to draw our picture from the Bible, instead of reading the Bible with our assumptions about God being colored by philosophies alien to the biblical world. Let’s see what we can learn about how the Bible unpacks God’s sovereignty.
Three questions arise.
- Can God be sovereign and perfect, and also be able to change?
- Can God be in control of the universe, and also give humans freedom?
- Can God create a universe in which he is an active partner with humanity, without determining every choice humans must make?
The answer to all three questions, from a biblical perspective, is Yes, God can.
God is God; he can do what he, of his own free will, decides to do in accord with who he is. The Holy Spirit inspired biblical writers to record occasions in which God changed. The Bible shows us that God created a world for himself in which he can and does abide, work, enjoy himself and rest. The universe depends on God for every moment of its existence, the Bible tells us, yet God takes pleasure in what he has made and is actively involved in its life and journey.
Consider the biblical picture of God. He loves a cool breeze (Genesis 3:8). He walks and talks with people (Exodus 33:11). He finds out things about them (Genesis 22:12). He makes friends (James 2:23) and gets betrayed by them (2 Samuel 12:7-9). This God, the God of the Bible, is sovereign, yet not so “otherly” that he cannot enjoy the world he made. When he finished making it, he proceeded to rest in it. He even calls on us to join him in his rest. He is a God who freely makes things and then sets out to use and enjoy what he has made.
Is such a God, who doesn’t seem to mind “getting his hands dirty,” truly in control? It seems to me, and you may disagree, that such a God is in far more control, and has far more power than the sort of God described by the TULIP. The “God of the TULIP” has to create what amounts to a grand DVD recording of entirely predetermined outcomes and characters who can’t wrestle with him, can’t talk back to him, challenge him, or, conversely, can’t truly love him, except as he has written it all into the script. He is in control, but of what? Of what amounts to an enormous cosmic screenplay. He has set up the universe and is now letting it play itself out in the way that he determined, and it goes like clockwork.
But the God of the Bible — who in his divine freedom has created a universe that is free, with truly free people — exercises his awesome creativity and genius continually, because, in spite of sinning and rebellious humans, he brings about his purpose for them. He allows choices because he is able to handle all the possible outcomes.
God is neither threatened by, nor overcome by, human free will and the time and chance he built into his universe. Rather, he works within them to bring about a human redemption that is purified in the midst of authentic relationships. He is constantly bringing good out of evil and light out of darkness through his indescribable grace freely demonstrated most supremely in Jesus Christ.
The God of the Bible does not force anyone to trust him. He doesn’t remove anyone’s freedom to refuse him. Yet, he is infinitely creative in his means of knocking on the doors of our human castles, inviting, even urging, us to invite him in. This is the God who became one of us in Jesus Christ. This is the God who is united with us and in communion with us through Christ. This is the God who loves us and who calls on us to love one another as he loves us.
God is free to be who he is. “I Am Who I Am,” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be,” is who this God says he is (Exodus 3:14). He is free to create the universe and humanity and interact with them in whatever way pleases him, and what pleases him is to be faithful to and with his creations.
God is able to create a windup, predetermined universe, but that does not mean that he had to. The Ptolemaic-Aristotelian concept of God, reflected in TULIP, demands that God had to. It demands that a proper, logical, totally sovereign God could have done things no other way. That concept, in its effort to safeguard God’s sovereignty, winds up tying God’s hands by limiting him to one particular and nonbiblical way of being sovereign with his creation.
On the other hand, if we are to take the biblical record of God’s self-disclosure seriously, we must conclude that God is free both to create and to interact with his creation in any way he pleases, because he is free to be and do as he pleases in accord with who he is (and he is “I Am Who I Am”).
Our freedom to be who we are in Christ is not a freedom that we have simply by virtue of existing. It is a freedom given to us by God, entrusted to us, and dependent on God’s own freedom to give it to us. We are free to accept or reject God’s grace only because God holds us in the palm of his hand, not because we have personal sovereignty in and of ourselves. People can reject God, but in rejecting God they are also rejecting themselves, because their freedom is upheld only by the God they are rejecting.
Immutable and impassible
In our efforts to discuss and describe God, we have no choice but to use analogies and comparisons to created things we know about. But we must keep in mind that in all our analogies and comparisons, God is not even on the same plane as any of the created things (objects, roles or passions) we might use in describing him. Even the pronoun “he” is only an analogy; we should not get the idea that God is actually male or female. (The term “Father” refers to the relationship between the Father and the Son [John 1:14, 18, 34] and the Father and creation [Ephesians 3:14-15]; the Father is infinitely greater than any human concept of “father.”)
God—Father, Son and Spirit—is the source and cause of all being and existence. He brings everything into being without anything bringing him into being. He is pure Being (that “Is-ness” from which all other being flows). All things depend on him for their existence, and he depends on nothing for his existence.
When we say God is “immutable” or “unchangeable,” we do not mean that God cannot change as he, in his eternal, uncreated freedom, chooses to change; we mean that God cannot be changed by anything outside himself, as though he were a created being.
But what about Malachi 3:6: “For I the Lord do not change”? This and other passages about God’s unchangeableness are declarations of God’s faithfulness to his covenant promise. (“Therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished,” he continues.) Within that unchanging faithfulness to his beloved people, there are many ups and downs, twists in the tale, disappointments and surprises. God declares that despite all your trials of faith and doubt, he will not change his mind about loving you and saving you. God’s covenant faithfulness is the theme throughout the Bible. God made promises to Abraham, and those promises included the salvation of the whole world through the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16, 29). The Bible is the record of God’s faithfulness to those promises.
When we say that God is “impassible” (incapable of feeling), we do not mean that God cannot feel; we mean, rather, that God cannot be hurt against his will by anything outside himself. In his divine freedom, God can, and does, of himself, change and feel. God cannot be acted on against his will, but in his divine freedom, he acts. When God created the universe, he freely in grace and love became something new — Creator — and he did so in the freedom of his grace and love. Likewise, when the Son became flesh in the Incarnation, God became something new — human like us and for our sakes. God did not have to create, nor did he have to become flesh, but he did so in his divine freedom out of the abundance of his grace and love.
In his eternal serenity and tranquility, God is not depressed, confused, worried, or bowled over by human sin, tragedy and disaster. He knows his power and purpose and what he is bringing out of it all. As Michael Jinkins put it,
God the Creator is intimately, passionately involved in creation continuously from beginning to end and at every nanosecond in between …. All things spring continuously from the God who loves them into existence, loves them redemptively throughout their existence and loves them toward God’s final and full purpose. (Invitation to Theology, InterVarsity Press, 2001, p. 90)
The universe is not “on its own.” “Cause and effect” is not all there is. The universe functions according to general rules laid out by its Creator, but it is not detached from its Creator’s free and gracious will and creatively sustaining presence. God made things in such a way that they bump and collide their way through what we might call a “randomly ordered” existence. We are subject to “time and chance,” yet we believe, as Christians, that our loving God uses these very real, and often painful happenstances of “time and chance” to mysteriously and graciously bring us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
The “God” of Plato and Aristotle could not change, because for “God” to change would mean that “God” was not already perfect. So “God” was called the “unmoved mover.” But the God of the Bible has no problem with changing whenever he decides to, and he remains perfect and perfectly God all the while. He haggled with Abraham over the fate of Sodom, agreeing to change his plan under certain conditions (Genesis 18:16-33).
God changed his mind about saving the Israelites when they started worshiping the calf at Mount Sinai, then allowed Moses to talk him out of killing them all and starting the whole plan over with Moses’ children (Exodus 32:7-14). He accommodated himself to Israel’s desire for a king even though they were making a mistake, and he would still ultimately deliver them from their rebellion (1 Samuel 8; Hosea 11:9; 14:4). He changed his plan regarding wicked King Ahab’s punishment (1 Kings 21:27-29).
God is sovereign, but God, who is Father, Son and Spirit, is sovereign the way he chooses to be, not the way the greatest human thinkers conclude the ultimate cause of all things must logically be.
God will be who God will be, and he has revealed himself to be, for us and with us, the Father of Jesus Christ, the Sender of the Holy Spirit, the Forgiver of sins, the Lover of souls, our Savior, our Deliverer, our Comforter, our Advocate, our Helper, our Strengthener, our Righteousness, our Peace, our Hope, our Life, our Light, our Friend and many other good and wonderful things.
God is smarter than we are, and our ideas about God aren’t always correct. God doesn’t behave the way we would expect. We cannot package him to make him more appealing. We cannot mold him into our imagined idea of what a proper and respectable, board-certified God ought to be like. God is not an unmoved mover who created a windup world of preprogrammed automatons. Nor is God “way out there,” merely looking down and watching and judging us as some detached Super-being.
He is the immanent one, that is, God with us. He is here, has been all along, and always will be, simply because he wants to be. Because he loves us. Because he made us real, to be real with him and in him and through him. Far from some platonic impersonal “other,” this God is always active and involved in his creation. He gets his hands dirty. He takes this reeking and sin-infested hovel we have turned the world into, and by the power of the bloody and unjust crucifixion of his own incarnate self, he cleans, redeems, transforms and ushers us and it into the joy of his eternal kingdom.
In Christ Jesus, God brings humanity into union and communion with the essence of who he is. We are one with him by his action on our behalf, not for our own sakes, but for the sake of Christ, who became for us the perfect human. If we are in him, we are in union with God, not as Gods, but as humans in union with the God/man, Jesus, who is human and divine for our sakes. Our continual communion, or fellowship, with him is a continual confirmation of and participation in that grand truth — we are God’s children in Christ.
Free in God’s faithfulness
We must not get the idea that God has to create, or that creation necessarily (that is, automatically, like a fire must necessarily produce heat) flows from him. God creates entirely in his divine freedom, not because he is a creation machine. Nor must we get the idea that God creates because he is lonely, or because there was something “missing” in God that compelled him to create. God is not lonely. The triune God is complete in every way, including in love, joy and perfection, without the creation.
God does not need the creation. God does not depend on the creation. The creation does not add anything to God that God “lacked.” The creation happened because God freely made it happen in the abundance of his joy and love, not because he had to or needed to, but simply because he wanted to.
So when we talk about God’s covenant faithfulness, we can begin to see how certain our trust in God can be. God brought the world into being for the sheer joy of it, redeemed humanity because he loved the people he made, and holds all things, all existence, including yours and mine, in the palm of his hand.
We can trust him because we know we exist only because he says so. If he has gone to all the trouble, while we were still his enemies, to redeem us through the cross (the hard part), how much more certain can we be that he will see our salvation through to the end (the easy part) now that we are his friends (Romans 5:8-11)?
God creates and God redeems because he wants to, not because we asked him to, or got him to, or talked him into it, or convinced him to, or behaved really well. He did it because he is good, because he is love, because he is who he is. Your behavior is not going to change who God is, or who God is toward you. If it could, he would not be God, because God cannot be changed by any incantations or spells or nice or naughty deeds you can throw at him.
You cannot manipulate God or coerce him. You can only trust him and receive the good things he has given you, or not trust him and refuse the good things he has given you. You have that freedom, a created freedom that reflects and derives from God’s own uncreated divine freedom. It is freedom to trust him, to commune with him, to love him. You can turn it into freedom to reject him if you want, but you don’t have to.
Assurance of salvation
Since the blood of Christ covers all sin, and he atoned for the whole world (1 John 2:1-2), then predestination, or election, in the sense of being chosen by God to be his people, applies to everyone through Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10). It is received and enjoyed only by those who accept it in faith, but it applies to everyone.
Some people are called to faith in Christ and experience his redemption before others do (verse 12). Those called to faith early are a living testament to the grace God has poured out on the world, a grace that will come fully into view at the appearing of Christ (Titus 2:11-14).
It is all done according to the foreknowledge of the God of grace who has been working out in Christ his gracious plan for humanity from the beginning (Matthew 25:34). When it comes to assurance of salvation, we trust in God who justifies the ungodly, which we are. We are saved by grace alone, not by our works, so our assurance rests in the sure word of the God of free grace.
Here is what, by the testimony of Jesus Christ, we know to be certain: God loves us, and we do not have to fear that we won’t be saved. He saves us in spite of our sins because he is faithful and full of grace. The only people who will not enjoy his salvation are those who do not want it.b
Someone may say that in this treatment of predestination we have oversimplified a complex theological matter, and no doubt we have. But this we know: God calls on us to trust him. If you and I are to trust him, we have to know that our relationship with him matters. We have to know that we are more than cogs in a deterministic machine of human pain, sorrow and tragedy. We have to know that God loves us, that he loves us so much that he sent his own Son to bail us out of a lifetime of horrible decisions and sin by taking all of it on himself in our place, even though we didn’t deserve such mercy.
Without a doubt, we can trust a God like that. We can throw in our lot with him and follow him to the ends of the earth, because we owe him our lives now and forever.
1 Please do not take anything I have written here to mean that I think people who hold the TULIP position are in any way “lesser” Christians than those who don’t. That would be a great mistake. Christians are people who put their faith in Jesus Christ, pure and simple. We are not measured by our theologies, but by God’s grace freely given to us in Jesus Christ. Our faith is in him, not in theology books. Theology is important, but it is not the root of our salvation. Jesus is.
Devoted and faithful Christian theologians have struggled throughout the centuries to find adequate words and concepts to inform our faith about how God exercises his sovereignty in the world. They do not always agree. Even so, the Christian struggle to understand and talk about God theologically is a worthy pursuit. It reflects our desire as Christians to use the reasoning power God has given us to seek greater understanding of our biblically grounded and personally experienced faith.
Though we may disagree with one another on certain points (none of us has perfect understanding), as believers, we are all God’s children, washed in the blood of our Savior, and he calls on us to love one another. In Christ, we can respect one another’s views, hear the issues that we each raise, in humility form our own conclusions … and still love one another as fellow partakers of the mercies of God. f
Author: J. Michael Feazell